Nicolay has traveled a long way, both literally and figuratively, since the days he went by the name Matthijs Rook in his Utrecht, Netherlands homeland. Not all that many years ago, he was issuing hip-hop jams on a release such as Here (BBE, 2006), but over time his music has undergone a substantial metamorphosis, as exemplified by the albums he's released with Phonte under The Foreign Exchange name and perhaps even more dramatically the Nujazz-styled albums he's issued in the City Lights series. Six years ago, the second installment, City Lights, Vol. 2: Shibuya, distilled into musical form the visceral thrill associated with a visit to Tokyo, and now this latest volume does much the same whilst displacing the geographical focus to South Africa.
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Nicolay Rook, half of the progressive-soul duo The Foreign Exchange, has once again stepped out and produced a solo album. Earlier this week, he released the third installment in his City Lights series, City Lights Vol. 3: Soweto. Conceived after The Foreign Exchange's first trip and tour to South Africa last year, the album is a breezy, atmospheric romp through that country's sounds, with lush and vibrant melodies set off by airy textures.
This aesthetic is on full display in "The Brightest Star," which finds Rook showcasing the vocals of his Foreign Exchange cohort Phonte Coleman and frequent collaborator Carmen Rodgers, both of whom sound assured and distinctive. Geared toward a summertime vibe, the groovy rhythms and robust melodies prove that it's a soundtrack for all seasons.
The Dutch producer explains each song on the new installment in his City Lights series.
On Tuesday, Nicolay released his new solo album, 'City Lights Vol. 3: Soweto'. 'Soweto' is an ode to the South African township and it's neighboring city of Johannesburg, the site of The Foreign Exchange's triumphant South African debut performance in 2014. In this track-by-track breakdown, Nicolay shares the background behind each of its 10 tracks.
It was around 3 a.m. one morning in May of last year when the Wilmington-based musician Nicolay and his neo-soul band, The Foreign Exchange, crossed Mandela Bridge in Johannesburg, South Africa.
They were dead tired from being on tour, and only hours earlier had played a sold-out show for fans they didn't know existed.
"We'd never seen that kind of pandemonium, before or after," he said. "It was wild, Beatles-esque in that we couldn't hear (for) the entire two hours. The reception was as warm you could imagine ... These people knew all of our music and we had no idea."
The image of the multi-colored bridge remained in Nicolay's mind when he was recording "City Lights Vol. 3: Soweto," his third solo album, scheduled for release on June 9.
"The Secret" is the second lead track from Nicolay's new solo album 'City Lights Vol. 3: Soweto', in stores now on +FE Music.
"NICOLAY - THE SECRET" LISTEN
All instruments by Nicolay
Lead and background vocals by Phonte
Produced by Phonte and Nicolay for The Foreign Exchange Music, LLC
You know the story if you've followed the Foreign Exchange: North Carolina rapper Phonte Coleman met Netherlands producer Matthijs Nicolay Rook on the message boards of Okayplayer, a Web community founded by ?uestlove. They traded audio files and compiled an album--2004's Connected--before they'd ever seen each other. The LP marked a creative shift for Phonte who, at the time, was known only as an MC with rap group Little Brother.
For Nicolay, Connected was a coming out of sorts; its success brought more attention to his atmospheric blend of soul and electronica. Years before Rhye gained attention for their airy Quiet Storm-inflected R&B, Nic created the same sorts of Eurocentric grooves. Here, his 2006 LP, tinkered with hip-hop soul and featured Wiz Khalifa long before he became "The Stoner Guy." By 2008's Leave It All Behind, Phonte ditched rap to mostly sing full time; Nicolay's melodies grew bigger and brighter, an evolution that continued on 2009's City Lights Vol. 2: Shibuya, which was inspired by his first visit to Tokyo.
Two stops on the Foreign Exchange's tour in support of Love in Flying Colors were venues in Johannesburg and Cape Town, South Africa. Almost precisely a year later, the duo's non-singing half followed up his previous solo release, 2009's City Lights, Vol. 2: Shibuya, with one naturally informed by the trip. Nicolay, who performs all of the instrumentation apart from an appearance from guitarist Chris Boerner, once again deftly incorporates traditional and contemporary sounds from a land otherwise distant to him. Radiant synthesizer melodies, jutting drums and probing basslines, and certain percussion accents are neatly woven through fusions of jazz-funk, house, broken beat, and downtempo electronic music. Like Shibuya, Soweto is less song-oriented than the Foreign Exchange albums. It likewise alternates between impeccably sequenced "home listening" tracks and nonaggressive dancefloor cuts. The closest peer is likely Louie Vega's similarly multicultural Elements of Life project, yet the material here is all original. This time, the voices are those of Phonte, who co-wrote seven of the ten songs, longtime associate Carmen Rodgers, and relative newcomer Tamisha Waden. There's also some narration, including brief Zulu lessons, from Johannesburg native Nomusa Nzima. Though all 48 minutes are unified, there are clear standouts. "The Brightest Star," ideally set up by the spangling low-key thumper "Sun Rings/Uprising," is the makers' most expansive formulation, a dynamic, glistening anthem possibly inspired, in part, by the vocoder wizardry of Herbie Hancock and the masterful cross-cultural arrangements of Richard Evans. "The Secret" is modern boogie -- midtempo post-disco -- with snaking high and low-end synthesizers framing a blissed-out Phonte vocal. It's also impossible to miss "Tomorrow," an intro with a hook large and ecstatic enough to be suited for an Olympics theme. One other major distinction between this volume and Shibuya is that this evokes a homecoming rather than a visitation.